Pilot attitude crucial in reducing light aircraft accidents

Specialist Business

Pilot attitude crucial in reducing light aircraft accidents

Published: 26 June 2015

There are still far too many avoidable light aircraft accidents in South Africa – around 20 fatal accidents a year – and 90% of these are caused by pilot error. While training standards in flying schools may be partly to blame, of greater concern is the attitude of pilots and their mental approach to flying, says James Godden, aviation insurance expert and head of Santam Aviation.

“Light aircraft accidents, especially those involving serious injuries or fatalities, are most often the result of poor decision-making and in certain instances, blatant recklessness. Very few are the consequence of mechanical failure,” he says.

Godden says Santam Aviation, South Africa’s longest established aviation insurer, receives on average 40 accident-related claims per month, with 50% of all claims being made up of landing accidents. Examples of unnecessary accidents include flying in instrument conditions without the necessary licensed rating, misjudging landing strip length, flying overweight, incorrect fuel management, flying too low, and taking chances, such as trying to find a gap in the weather instead of turning around.

“We also receive at least two claims a month resulting from gear-up landings. One can’t blame the pilot for a bird strike, for example, but forgetting to extend your landing gear? And yet this happens far more often than one would think.”

Godden says there should be greater focus in flying schools on instilling the correct attitude in light aircraft pilots to prevent risky behaviour and pilots taking reckless chances. He welcomed the Cross-Functional Accident Reduction Plan (CFARP) introduced by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) in February 2014, which is aimed at reducing accidents in the general aviation sector. “However, we also need to see much stricter enforcement of legislation and regulations – drastic measures need to be taken to bring down the high number of accidents and save lives.”

He says that from an insurance perspective, many aircraft owners don’t realise that if the pilot is in breach of aviation law and SACAA regulations, or does not have the required authority to fly, an insurance claim may be repudiated, whether or not the accident was related to the breach of regulation.

Rising costs of repairs

The increasing cost of aviation claims is also a matter of serious concern, says Godden. Santam’s average cost of claims per month is now around R7 million, and the insurer is expecting an overall increase of around 10% in terms of repair costs this year. High costs are being driven mainly by exchange rate issues, as well as inflation. “On claims that are repairable, the problem can get more complicated due to the time it can take to repair an aircraft. This can take months and in that time, the exchange rate could slip further. As most parts are imported and priced in dollars, this could increase the cost of a claim on a daily basis,” he says.

Another challenge facing insurers worldwide is that rates are currently at an all-time low due to excess capacity in the market, and this means reduced premium for insurers. There is a plethora of smaller insurers who have entered the market over the past few years and who undercut rates, a practice which is unsustainable in the long term. “It is fair to say that the situation is fairly critical at the moment. If the current trend continues, we are going to reach a point where there is not enough premium to pay claims. Insurers will be forced in the near future to push up rates, and smaller players may be forced to exit this insurance sector.”

Choosing the right insurer

Godden points out that with a shake-down in the aviation insurance sector a distinct possibility, it is critical to obtain adequate and appropriate insurance from a well-established insurer with an excellent track record, credit rating and claims paying history. “Santam, for example, has been in the insurance business for 96 years, and its aviation business is currently the biggest in Africa. Our insurance products are supported by bespoke underwriting criteria to manage and quantify our clients’ risks. An aircraft is a very expensive asset – do you really want to take a chance by insuring it with a company without a long-standing and proven history?”

The role of specialist intermediaries

Buying insurance and getting the right level of cover is a complex process and requires the expertise of specialist intermediaries. “The role of insurance intermediaries is vital in the aviation industry as they are best placed to advise clients given their unique understanding of the sector. They can advise what an aircraft may or may not be covered for, and when a breach of regulations may lead to a repudiation of a claim. For example, one of Santam’s clients contacted their specialist intermediary recently to find out whether their aircraft would be covered in a certain situation – they were game darting and had run out of light – and the intermediary could provide the necessary expert advice to enable them to make an informed decision.”

At Santam, we want to give our aviation sector clients the peace of mind that is critical to enjoying an exhilarating experience. This boils down to effective risk management, which includes assisting our clients to be better equipped to manage their own risk effectively. In short, providing insurance good and proper,” Godden concludes.